Kill Joy to Live Better

Sara Ahmed’s Feminist Killjoy Handbook teaches us not to nod and smile

By Mary Retta

A brightly colored photo-illustration of a brunette laughing as she looks up
Photoillustration by Chloe Scheffe

The most famous feminist killjoy did not stop smiling through our two-hour-long conversation. Sarah Ahmed took joy in everything: her sweet dogs, the books lining the shelves of her home office. She was optimistic about the feminists in her life, the students who fought against a sexist university administration. Her sunny demeanor reminded me that the grinding struggles of feminism and anti-racism are efforts towards greater joy. 

The British-Australian scholar’s latest book, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, is an elaboration of her popular theory of killing joy. Ahmed first explored the idea in her 2010 book, The Promise of Happiness, and in Feminist Killjoys, a blog she began in 2013. The new book uses pop culture and little jargon to make the “killjoy” figure legible to feminists of all kinds. 

When we spoke over Zoom in February, Ahmed told me she is not as interested in what happiness is as  much as what it does. We take for granted, she notes, that a woman’s wedding day will be the “happiest day of her life,” or that young girls are expected to sacrifice in order to make their family “happy.” In short, a woman’s happiness, in the mainstream sense, can be measured by how little personal autonomy she has. Ahmed’s coming out to her parents was a killjoy act, she argues, because she knew she would be disrupting their idea of a “happy” or acceptable life. Ahmed’s father said he might “tolerate” her lifestyle. “The conditions of maintaining a relationship with him would be to become ‘tolerable,’” said Ahmed, “and I’m not willing to do that.” Feminist killjoys reimagine their own happiness in order to reimagine the world. 

Her work helps us think about the fights to gain recognition for queer people through institutions like marriage or the military. Writing in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision that states are required to license and recognize same-sex marriages, scholars such as Dean Spade argued that the fight for marriage is antithetical to the fight for queer liberation. Marriage equality would not bring true happiness, because it assimilates queer people into the culture of straightness and patriarchy, rather than promoting radical forms of love and family-making. Spade was being a gay marriage killjoy. 

It feels fitting that Ahmed cites Toni Morrison as a feminist killjoy, as she once famously said that “the very serious function of racism,” and, I would argue, most forms of bigotry, “is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.” Happiness, too, often serves as a distraction, encouraging people to find peace within broken systems rather than tearing them down. Less than 10 years after Obergefell, we may lose that thin promise of happiness anyway, with old victories like Roe v. Wade being overturned by the court. 

A killjoy politic often goes hand in hand with loss: of respect or communication with family members, of opportunities. But Ahmed resents the idea that killjoys aim to cause disruptive conversations or sever relationships, “as if you are only speaking up because you want to shut a conversation down, stop something from happening, or stop a happy feeling from existing,” she said. 

In some ways, Ahmed continued, the Handbook operates as a guidebook for dealing with critics who blame feminists for “cancel culture.” It’s a term Ahmed tries to avoid: “The word ‘cancel’ is being used to stop us from looking at the diverse range of ways in which things are being questioned,” she said. Often, the real aim of killjoys is to widen the scope of discussion. Ahmed gave an example of a document produced by a university (most likely the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS, in London, though she declined to name it) that argued that the philosophy curriculum at the school should be “decolonized” by adding more scholars who are not white. When the media caught wind of the campaign, however, it erupted: the Daily Mail, The Telegraph, and the London Times all accused SOAS students of “canceling” great philosophers because they are white. “When you try to widen the door so that more people can enter, you’re treated like you’re trying to destroy something,” she said. “And that sort of tells you something about how power is operating there.”

Ahmed’s theory is also relevant to the debate about reclaiming labels or slurs. Ahmed’s love of the term “killjoy” reminds me of writer Ellen Samuels, who coined the term “crip time” to distinguish the ways that disabled people move through the world. Rather than bending disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, “crip time” bends the clock and makes us rethink the world to meet disabled bodies and minds. For Samuels, the reclamation of “crip” is a killjoy act, one that insists that happiness is not about inclusion in an inaccessible world, but about building a world in which people with disabilities can be their full selves. “When you reclaim the term ‘feminist killjoy’ you end up in conversation with other people who, like you, find a potential in that term too, how its negativity can be redirected,” writes Ahmed.

In 2016, Ahmed left her position at Goldsmiths, University of London as well as academia at large in protest over what she described as the school’s culture of sexual harassment towards female students. In the aftermath of her departure, Ahmed says, the university produced its own “happy story” claiming that it was proficient at dealing with issues of sexual harassment and creating an environment of equality and diversity. “It was partly in order to stop the containment of the story behind closed doors,”  she said of her departure. “But it’s also partly because I’d just had enough. I wouldn’t say I thought of it as a killjoy gesture.” 

People kill joy to survive.

Ahmed has no plans to return to academia; she feels that her time post-institution has allowed her to write her own story. “I’m deeply committed to the task of separating myself from the institution as much as possible in order to do the work that I want to do,” she told me. She now spends her days writing and independently mentoring students. She largely penned the Handbook out of a lingering commitment to education, and a desire to teach people about feminism outside of a traditional academic setting. 

Towards the end of our chat, I wondered whether being a killjoy requires a certain level of privilege. Quitting your job because you disagree with the workplace’s principles, or standing up to your family — these actions are risky, and resources help mitigate that risk. But Ahmed disagreed. “Some of the people who are least likely to kill joy are people who are the most privileged because they have a lot of investment in the institution as it is and they benefit from that,” Ahmed explained. On the whole, she said, people kill joy to survive.

A true killjoy continues her work even — and perhaps especially — if she has something to lose from speaking out. Professional development, and social status: these are often the price. “One of the hardest parts of killing joy is that we’re not just talking about other people’s joy,” said Ahmed. “We’re also talking about our own.”

Mary Retta writes about politics and culture. Her work can be found in New York Magazine, The Atlantic, The Nation, and elsewhere.